Top of draft shows stark contrast between haves and have-nots
It's rare that I begin with the Stat of the Week in this column, but there's a method to my statness.
Part of the method is I'm so damn sick of all the other bounty-related crap that keeps oozing from the NFL's pores, and I figure you must be too, that I want to lead with actual football. The draft, specifically, seeing that a historic first round is 17 days away. The draft is usually America's fourth-biggest sport (behind the NFL, major league baseball and the NBA), but the spate of bounty and Peyton Manning coverage has relegated the draft to a lesser pastime. So let's spend a couple thousand words on the draft, and the teams drafting, here at the top.
I'll get to everything of note this week, and the looming bounty suspension news, and the overwhelming sadness of the Steve Gleason-Sean Pamphilon mess, and the death of a good man in Dallas. But we start out west, with one of those draft-pick-poor teams, and what the Oakland Raiders are doing about it.
The Raiders are actually doing things right, and Reggie McKenzie's the reason why.
When the Raiders hired McKenzie as general manager in January, he took over a team with the most decimated draft board in recent history. No first-, second-, third-, fourth- or seventh-round picks because of prior trades or Supplemental Draft picks. McKenzie inherited a team that, in late February, was $26 million over the salary cap and had two draft choices -- the 148th and 189th overall -- before the annual compensatory picks were awarded. Think about it: An 18-year scout finally gets his chance to run a team and pick the players he wants ... and he's hamstrung by the worst cap situation in the league, and one of the worst draft-choice pools in NFL history. And one more thing: Peyton Manning just walked into his division.
"Never thought, 'Woe is me,' '' he said the other night from his office in Oakland. "Not once. Never thought I shouldn't take the job because of things like that either. It never entered my mind. I just figured, 'We'll find players.' I know how to find players. I've been in Green Bay when we found Mark Tauscher and Donald Driver late in drafts, and found Tramon Williams on the street, and signed Charles Woodson in free agency. It can be done.''
If McKenzie's right, it will be done this year with low-cost free-agents starting at three positions (Shawntae Spencer and Ron Bartell at cornerback, Philip Wheeler at linebacker), and one well-paid (five years, $20 million) starting right guard, Mike Brisiel. Help also came in the form of three of the top 10 compensatory picks awarded last month in the third, fourth and fifth rounds. Oakland's first pick will be the first compensatory choice awarded by the NFL, the 95th overall choice, which means McKenzie will sit around all night Thursday on day one of the draft, and all night Friday through rounds two and three, till the end of the third round.
I asked McKenzie if he wished he could have the Carson Palmer trade back. Last October, then-coach Hue Jackson dealt first- and second-round picks to Cincinnati for Palmer. "You can beat that doggone story 'til it's worn out,'' said McKenzie. "But I know this: We've got a quarterback we think can win the division and take us to the playoffs. Losing a one and a two doesn't bother me one bit."
McKenzie said he feels honored to be the first person in almost half a century other than Al Davis to be running the Raiders' draft. "This is a new day in the Raider organization,'' he said. "Coach Davis, he knew football. I relish the chance to follow him and get this team back where it belongs.''
Last fall, I arranged after some negotiations to do a story for the NBC Super Bowl pregame show on Steve Gleason, the former (and heroic) New Orleans Saints special-teamer who'd been diagnosed with ALS, a fatal disease, early in 2011. I flew to New Orleans in November to begin reporting on the story. Gleason and his shadow, documentarian Sean Pamphilon, met me for lunch. Pamphilon had been working for months with Gleason and wife Michel on a project that they hoped would turn into a marketable documentary or movie about Gleason's life of dealing with this fatal disease. For Gleason, an added motivation was that his infant son, Rivers, would have footage he could always see of his father, no matter how long his life lasted.
Immediately, I could see the closeness of the two men. Pamphilon helped Gleason -- still ambulatory, but with an awkward gait -- sit and get around when help was needed. When Michel arrived at the restaurant with baby Rivers an hour into the meeting, Pamphilon stood up and took the baby carrier and in a gentlemanly way cleared a place for Michel to sit. For a while he held the baby and cooed to him. And for the next couple of months, whenever I was around the Gleasons and Michel's tightly knit New Orleans family, Pamphilon was a combination of videographer and mother hen. I thought he was as close to the Gleason family as anyone could be without being in the family.
Which is why I can think of only one word to describe the disagreement and gulf between Pamphilon and Gleason this morning: sad.
Gleason has remained close to the Saints since his diagnosis. Very close. Sean Payton has given him the run of the football building; if Gleason ever needs treatment or help with rehab, he can use the Saints' training facilities. Last fall, the Saints surprised Gleason, who last played for the team in Payton's first year as coach, 2006, with a Super Bowl ring, even though he didn't play on the 2009 Super Bowl-winning team. The owner of the team, Tom Benson, thinks so much of Gleason that he commissioned a bronze statue of Gleason blocking a punt in the first post-Katrina game in 2006 for the outside of the Superdome.
Payton invited Gleason to make the trip to the Saints' playoff game in San Francisco in January. The night before the game, Gleason was invited into the defensive team meeting room, and his shadow, Pamphilon, went with him. That's when defensive coordinator Gregg Williams made his infamous speech directing the Saints to go after various players on the 49ers in graphic and disturbing ways -- the exclamation point on what the NFL believes has been a three-year practice of bounties on opposing players and off-the-books financial rewards for starry defensive plays.
A few things here are very clear.
1. Pamphilon was disturbed by what he heard in the meeting.
2. Pamphilon would never have been in the meeting if he wasn't a trusted friend of Gleason.
3. Pamphilon tried to convince Gleason to allow him to use the audio damning Williams. Gleason, who never played for Williams, didn't like what he heard in the meeting either, but he didn't want the audio released. Obviously, if what they heard in the meeting was going to be made public by Gleason or Pamphilon, the Saints would never have let either in the room.
Gleason knew if the tape came out, he'd spend much of whatever cogent energy he has left on something he never intended to fight -- the rantings of a renegade coach -- instead of focusing on what his aim is: trying to make ALS patients live more productive lives.
Pamphilon betrayed the wishes of a dying man and a former very close friend by releasing the tape; that much we know. But the interesting thing in this story is that the public seems conflicted much more than I thought would be the case. The majority who have responded to me on Twitter (I'd say 60 percent) have said Williams' words were so reprehensible that they, in essence, gave Pamphilon sufficient reason to break his relationship with Gleason and release the audio to the public. He's being seen as a whistleblower the public should applaud, not condemn.
By blowing the whistle, though, what has Pamphilon accomplished? He has shone a light on a dark story. He has earned a seat at what I expect will be a Congressional hearing on the bounty scandal. But Williams already had been suspended indefinitely by commissioner Roger Goodell. Williams already had said he would not appeal the suspension. The release of the audio didn't affect the league's probe, except perhaps to slam the door shut on any chance Payton -- an innocent in Pamphilon's eyes -- had to get his appeal reduced. I got the distinct impression sniffing around the probe Friday that the audio corroborated the league's investigation but did not advance the story.
Now as to the legality of it. Pamphilon, through Mike Silver of Yahoo! Sports, said he did not violate the agreement he had with Gleason when releasing the audio, and Silver wrote the contract does not "specifically prohibit either party from posting footage ... prior to completion of the film.'' I have not seen the contract, but a source with knowledge of the relationship between Gleason and Pamphilon said it was never contemplated anything regarding the film would be released without both sides agreeing.
The mere discussion of what's legally right is what turns my stomach the most. I told you how close these two men were. This is one of those cases where what's legally right shouldn't matter. What's morally right should. What's morally right is that Pamphilon, who never would have heard what Williams said without being attached to Gleason, shouldn't have released the tape without Gleason's permission.
I'm tremendously conflicted on this story. I've thought about it for three days straight, trying to divine what's right and wrong. I enrolled in college to study journalism in 1975, one year after the Watergate burglary and coverup forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency. I'm all for the public's right to know. And in the end, I'm tempted to say the more clarity about this story the better, just so the public understands why Goodell acted with such an iron hand. But I can't get over the way the material was acquired and made public. It's just not right.
I cannot find it in my heart to quite call Pamphilon a rat, but I cannot call him a hero either.
I've said this for the last couple of weeks, and I still believe it: Roger Goodell will give Gregg Williams a path back into the NFL. Goodell likes stories of redemption. He gave Michael Vick a path back, and Vick was as radioactive in his own way back in 2009 as Williams is today. I think if Williams does what the league wants -- and he's already started, by admitting his guilt, saying he is sorry, and not appealing his sanction -- he'll become a spokesman with high schools and colleges for what surely will be the league's anti-bounty and anti-violence push that comes out of this.
Does that mean he'll get another coaching job? That's another question. The Rams are now going to have to think about what keeping Williams will mean to their team. Is it possible for Williams to stand up in front of a group of men, all of whom will know he advocated aiming for knees and wounded heads in fiery speeches, and reach them? What about having Williams on your coaching staff, and going into free agency trying to recruit players? Money talks, yes. But will the presence of Williams be a free agent repellant?
As for the Saints, while some will think the audio tape will isolate Williams as a rogue coach, I feel strongly that's not how Goodell viewed it. Look at Goodell's prior statements and rulings here. He blames Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis for enabling a three-year pattern of this renegade defensive behavior. Goodell heard the tape and I can bet he thought:
Which is why I cannot see any reduction in the sanctions to Payton and Loomis. Goodell didn't buy Payton's I-didn't-know-this-was-going-on stance six weeks ago, and I doubt sincerely he heard anything from Payton on Thursday to change his mind.
Goodell talked with NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith during the week, apparently for quite a lengthy conversation. Whether they'll be on the same page with any player suspension, I doubt. I can't predict how many players will get suspended, but it seems logical to think middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma will get the lengthiest one and perhaps three or more defensive leaders will get lesser bans. But that's based on common sense and nothing else. I do know this: Goodell hates bad news occupying front sports pages, particularly when it robs coverage from an event the league loves -- the draft -- and so I believe Goodell will rule on the suspension appeals today or Tuesday at the latest, and I'd be surprised if he doesn't rule on the players this week.
Joe Avezzano was always in search of another coaching gig, or another country song. And if he couldn't find a coaching gig here, he'd go anywhere. That's why he was in Italy when he died of a heart attack while on a treadmill Thursday, preparing to coach the Milano Seamen of the Italian league.
In 1991, I went on a scouting trip prior to the draft with the Dallas Cowboys coaching staff. The Cowboys used their coaches to scout. So on this trip, to North Carolina State, Tennessee, Michigan State and Notre Dame, Jimmy Johnson brought some of his key guys along: Norv Turner and Hubbard Alexander on offense, Butch Davis and Dave Wannstedt on defense, and Avezzano, the special teams coach, to look at the punters and kickers. Fascinating trip. That was the draft enriched by the Herschel Walker trade, and others, and the Cowboys picked Russell Maryland, Alvin Harper and Dixon Edwards, among others that year.
But the star of the trip was Avezzano. Boy, did he know how to have a good time. The group went to Tennessee coach Johnny Majors' house (that's how long ago this trip happened -- Majors was the Vol coach) one night, staying long past 12, and Avezzano picked up a guitar and started crooning. "Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys'' was first. Avezzano was no phony. The man could sing, and he could play the guitar. Then, to Majors' delight, Avezzano launched into a rousing "Rocky Top'' rendition.
By the end of it, he had everyone doing the chorus. And I thought it was a good thing that Majors didn't have any neighbors close by. They'd have all been woken up by the bad singing.
"Joe,'' Johnson said to him on that trip, "I wish you could just learn to relax a little bit.''
Don't let that give you the wrong impression of the guy. He could coach the kicking game. Three times he was named special teams coach of the year, and he was part of three Super Bowl championship teams in Dallas, where he coached for 13 years. And TV networks loved him, because he was one of the most demonstrative coaches ever. A sideline ranter, with that wild white hair. Other than Johnson, he was easily the most charismatic and well-known of the Dallas coaches on that staff. Just an unforgettable man.
"We've got to do everything in the world to make sure we kill Frank Gore's head. We want him running sideways. We want his head sideways ... Every single one of you, before you get off the pile, affect the head. Early, affect the head. Continue, tough and hit the head ... We need to decide on how many times we can beat Frank Gore's head.''
"This is the most heinous, egregious thing in the history of the this game ... Not for one second would I sit in a room and listen to someone say, 'We're going to take out someone's ACL,' without standing up and saying, 'What the hell are you talking about?' ''
"As much as we love the Brewers, unlike Jesus, they didn't die for your sins. With regard to beer and brats on Good Friday, let's just say that's why God created the three-game series."
When is Demetrius not Demetrius? When it's Demetress.
Free agent Demetress Bell signed with the Eagles to play left tackle last week. Only when he sat down to dinner with Philadelphia offensive line coach Howard Mudd, Bell explained to Mudd that his first name wasn't really "Demetrius,'' as had been listed as his name going back to high school -- and perhaps before. He looked at his birth certificate entering college at Northwestern (La.) State, and saw his name really was "Demetress,'' but just never said anything to anyone about it.
(Bell's life has been an odd one in another way. He was born out of wedlock to ex-NBA star Karl Malone and a fellow resident of Summerfield, La., Gloria Bell. Malone didn't take an active role in Demetress' upbringing, talking to him but once, according to a story by the late Allen Wilson in the
So in 2003, he enrolled at Northwestern State, knowing his name was "Demetress'' but going along with the more conventional "Demetrius.'' He never told anyone when he was drafted by the Bills in the seventh round of the 2008 draft, and throughout his career in Buffalo. But when he was being recruited to play for the Eagles, he told offensive line coach Howard Mudd his real name, and when he signed with the Eagles, Mudd alerted Philadelphia director of football media service Derek Boyko, who called Bell to ask him how he wanted to be identified. Bell told him he wanted to be known as "Demetress'' and he wanted the name changed officially with the NFL. So the Eagles did that.
The Eagles have been a name-change bastion in recent seasons.
In 2006, tackle Tra Thomas -- whose official name is William Thomas III and whose nickname was "Tra'' -- asked to be known by his real name, William Thomas. That lasted two years. In 2008, he asked to be called Tra Thomas again. Tra Thomas is retired now.
Also in 2006, the Eagles signed former Giants cornerback Will Peterson, whose full name was Williams James Peterson Jr. When he arrived in Philadelphia, he told the Eagles he wanted to be known as William James. That's how he is known today. He is unsigned, having last played for San Francisco in 2010.
In 2008, defensive end Juqua Thomas changed his last name to "Parker'' to honor his father, whose last name was Parker and who died in 2005. Juqua Parker left the Eagles last month and signed with Cleveland.
"ColtsFans,roster reshaping exciting n producing a very physical MONSTER!Things have always pointed toward #12 but eval process is OpenMinded''
"Padres-Dodgers broadcast returns from commercial, featuring shot of full moon over Petco. Vin Scully: 'Can you believe we put a man on it?' "
a. Good for Bubba Watson, who may never have gotten to Butler Cabin in his dreams but who totally deserved to win The Masters.
b. Happy marriage, Jeff Darlington. Jeff's the terrific recent NFL.com and NFL Network hire, and he got married Saturday. Hear it was a lively affair. Good luck, Jeff. You're 31.7 years of wedded bliss behind me.
c. I love The Masters. That's where the stands behind a green are not called "bleachers," according to CBS, but rather "the patron observation platform." Riiiiiightt.
d. Kept watching the tournament Saturday, in part because I can't imagine a more beautiful place (outside of Bryce Canyon) on earth. After having seen it in person last year, I realize it's not just CBS painting an incredible picture with its sightlines. It's true: As far as the eye can see -- incredible lovely.
e. That, people, is the ultimate thing you've got to cross off your sporting bucket list. The Masters. So much fun. In part because they don't sell a zillion tickets. You can watch the tournament, walk from hole to hole, and not be crowded unless you're following the lead group or it's day four and there's only one story that everyone's watching.
f. Peter Hanson can putt.
g. Congrats on the first goal of your NHL career, Stephen (kid brother of Brian) Gionta, to beat Ottawa Saturday in the New Jersey Devils' season finale. And congrats, Ilya Kovalchuk, on your 37-goal season. Knew you had it in you.
h. Devils 48-28-6. Red Wings 48-28-6.
i. Best first-round Stanley Cup series: Philadelphia at Pittsburgh. Second-best: Los Angeles at Vancouver; they split four games this year, with the two Canuck wins by a goal.
j. Congrats on the national title in hockey, Boston College. Heck of a job by your goalie.
k. The greatest thing I heard about the one-and-done Kentucky hero, Anthony Davis, in the aftermath of the Kentucky win is that Davis' high school team won 13 games in his last two years of prep basketball. Who'd he have playing with him? Four Peter Kings? What a player that kid is, and he doesn't have to score to be great.
l. The mark of a great player is being impactful when you're getting more defensive attention than anyone else in your sport. That's what happens to Brittany Griner every game, and she still is the best player in the game, every night.
m. This is why Joe Maddon is so good. In the first two games of the season, Jeff Keppinger and Matt Joyce batted cleanup, and Tampa Bay beat the Yankees twice, scoring 15 runs. Joyce batted ninth in game one. Keppinger batted seventh in game two. Egoless team, chess-pieced well, with a terrific pitching staff (which helps).
n. I really want to see
o. Journalism of the week: Excellent job on breaking the Gregg Williams audio story, Mike Silver, and on the interpretation of it that was so important.
p. Red Sox closer ERA: 63.00 (Aceves, Melancon).
q. Orioles, Mets: 6-0. Red Sox, Yankees: 0-6.
r. RIP, one my journalism heroes, Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes."
s. RIP, Blair Kiel. I didn't know him, but those who did say he was a good and decent man. Gone way too soon.
t. Coffeenerdness: Easter morning, Starbucks Italian Roast. Not a better coffee smell in the world than that wafting through the home.
u. Beernerdness: Hate to be boring, but I found a place in North Jersey that sells Allagash White, so that was my beer of choice this week. There aren't many beers I've had that are as good in the bottle as on tap -- and I'd still prefer this one on tap, with a lemon -- but Allagash White is very close.